Rick Majerus doesn’t remember the date his father died of a heart attack. It was one day in December, Majerus says, in 1987.
He does, however, vividly recall his phone ringing in the middle of the night, some six years later, with a tearful May Van Horn on the other end. Her husband had suddenly died of a heart attack, and she wanted her son Keith’s basketball coach to tell him the news. He hung up, and trudged to his prized freshman’s dorm room, rapping on the door at 2 a.m.
“The night Van Horn’s dad died, I really laid into him at practice. Then I got that call, and went up to the dorms to tell him,” Majerus said. “I think he thought I was coming to get after him again. But I tell the guys that when we walk off that floor, I don’t carry anything with me. It’s like being a parent—sure, you can be out there trying to win a popularity contest and be your kid’s best friend, but …”
He took Van Horn to an all-night diner that night, where they shared stories of their fathers, who traveled across state lines to see their sons perform on the hardwood, fathers who sang and cooked breakfast and made their kids promise to graduate from college.
That night, the night Keith Van Horn lost his No. 1 fan, Rick Majerus became a father again.
With no children of his own, Majerus, coach of the University of Utah’s Runnin’ Utes, has spent the past 30 years raising kids—and banners in the rafters of basketball arenas in Milwaukee, Muncie and Salt Lake City. Not all the kids are happy. Some wonder why he wasn’t more caring. Some couldn’t wait to get out of the house—or in Majerus’ case, the room at the University Marriott.
He leaves a basketball in the backseat of his car and has lived a monastic life—sequestered in hotels and film rooms—devoted to hoops, but Majerus is not just a basketball coach.
Like most successful people, he is intensely complicated. He is also complicatingly intense, demanding the most of his players and cutting them loose when they don’t live up to his often unrealistic expectations. He is the jolly man with the quick comebacks and zinging one-liners in front of the cameras, but on the practice courts and in the bowels of the Huntsman Center, Majerus broods, schemes and nitpicks.
He is the highest paid public employee in the state of Utah with a salary near $500,000. He is the most successful coach in the modern history of Utah basketball. He is a father figure to some, a jerk to others. One parent of a former player says he feared Majerus would drive his son to suicide. He is basketball’s version of Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, a guy who will alternately buy birthday cakes for his players and then eviscerate them for not playing tight enough defense. Some former players allege he is vulgar, obscene and inappropriate.
He is not your best friend.
“Rick Majerus is a great guy but Coach Majerus is a dick,” said Trent Whiting, one of 17 of Majerus’ 34 recruits in the past seven years to leave his program. “He cares about people and wants them to be happy. He was always making sure we had coats and gloves and hats so we weren’t cold. And one time, a guy’s mom was sick and he was like, ‘Don’t worry about it, take the day off.’ But once it gets down to ball, you’d better watch out because it’s his way or no way.”
Holding court and teaching class
His way has at least proved to be a winning one. While Majerus has as many detractors as victories, nobody can argue with the results on the agate page. His .775 winning percentage is third among active college basketball coaches. His teams average 22 wins per season. He came about eight minutes away from cutting down the nets in the Alamodome in 1998, but his team fell in the national championship to a more talented Kentucky squad.
“Anybody who can get Utah within 20 minutes of a national championship, that’s all you need to know about him as a coach,” said Gene Wojciechowski, who covers college athletics for ESPN the Magazine and co-authored Majerus’ autobiography, My Life On a Napkin. “The depth of his basketball mind is incredible.”
Even players who left Majerus’ program don’t criticize his ability to coach. “He’s a great coach,” said Cameron Goettsche, who transferred this past off-season to Salt Lake Community College. “He knows basketball for sure.”
In the words of Brad Crockett, who quit the team after his LDS mission and his marriage, said Majerus is a “studier. I don’t know how much sleep he’s getting.”
Majerus is the quintessential student of the game. Not talented enough to play collegiately (he was cut from Milwaukee’s Marquette University after legendary coach Al McGuire called him “one of the crappiest players” to ever play for the Golden Eagles), Majerus used the Midwestern work ethic he learned from his union rep father and devoted himself to coaching.
His first gig was hardly glamorous. There were no TV cameras at the Neeskara playground in Milwaukee or on the courts at St. Sebastian’s High. Reporters didn’t ask the chubby college student questions. Nobody cared about his triangle-and-two defense or his opinions about education or his one-liners. But Majerus started to turn heads with his scrappy teams.
McGuire was impressed, and hired him as an assistant, on the condition Majerus went to law school like he had promised his father. It only took six weeks before full-court presses and rebounds overwhelmed torts and constitutional law. He quit.
He used his vast knowledge of the game and his fat-man-in-a-little-coat charm to eventually become a head coach at Marquette and then at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. In between, he was one of Don Nelson’s assistants with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.
In 1989, Utah athletic director Chris Hill hired him, and the state and the university have never been the same. Neither have the Utes, who, under Majerus’ tenure, have graduated from traditional underachievers to playing in a national championship.
Wojciechowski says Majerus’ has few equals in the way he prepares for games. That was on display during the Utes’ run to the national championship, which included headline-grabbing upsets of Arizona and North Carolina—programs Wojciechowski calls “the elite of the elite.”
“I went to the practices when the team was getting ready to play Arizona. And I’m telling you, I swear to God, that I could have played in that game and known what to do and where to go, which way [Arizona stars Mike] Bibby and Miles [Simon] go, which hand they like, what their strengths were. I would have been mostly prepared for that,” Wojciechowski said.
The Textbook Coach
One might think Majerus could rattle off how many wins he’s racked up in his career, or that the walls in his Marriott suite are covered with chalk slashes. But he’s just as likely to remember the date of his father’s death, or what he learned in those six weeks of law school. When Majerus was growing up in Wisconsin, a famous football coach up the coast in Green Bay once said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” And while that may be true as far as keeping his job, Majerus says his emphasis is on books, not balls.
“The most important charge or mission I have is to ensure players’ academic success. That has been my greatest concern and my greatest challenge, and something that I’ve enjoyed,” he said. “I like to recruit good students and it’s important to ensure a good student remains a good student.”
Majerus’ academic record is nearly as sterling as his winning percentage. In his 13 years at the U of U, 35 of his players have made the honor roll a combined 160 times. Twenty-three of 34 of his seniors have gone on to graduate. Three Academic All-Americans have played under Majerus, two of them starters on the national runner-up team.
Majerus says his greatest moment as a coach wasn’t guiding his team into the Final Four—it was attending the graduation of Miller, who came to Utah as an academic non-qualifier by receiving a sub-standard SAT score.
“A lot of coaches like to talk about how important academics are, but I’ve seen it in action,” Wojciechowski said. “That year they got to the national championship, Rick had two Academic All-Americans on his team: Mike Doleac and Drew Hansen. And I’m willing to bet you a nickel that he’d say he was more proud of that than of almost winning a national championship.”
Hill says he hired Majerus because of that commitment to education. “I knew that he could coach and would be insistent on the team going to school. At the time, that was a big concern,” he said. “I know the basketball players go to school and work hard and I rarely, rarely have problems with the kids not doing well academically.”
The Dribbling Diaspora
It didn’t take much to convince Goettsche to sign with Majerus’ Utes. Recruited out of Denver-area high schools by Utah, Wyoming and UC-Santa Barbara, Goettsche thought his best chance of making it to the NBA would be following the route of former Utes Van Horn, Miller, Doleac and Hanno Mottola, all of whom went on to play in the world’s best basketball league. Throw in the academic tradition, and the 6-foot-8 forward was ready to run every stair in the Huntsman Center for Majerus.
Same with Jordie McTavish. A short but quick point guard from British Columbia, McTavish was enamored with the attention heaped on him by the gregarious Majerus, who told the Salmon Arm product he had NBA potential.
Whiting followed Utah’s run to the national championship game and figured his up-tempo style of play would fit in perfectly with the Runnin’ Utes, and so he transferred from central Utah’s Snow College.
None of the three made it to their senior years at Utah—not even McTavish, who played in the national championship game. They are just a few of the players who have either left the program on their own accord or, in the case of McTavish, were slam-dunked by the coach. They’re not alone—half of the players Majerus has recruited in the past seven years didn’t play their final home game at the Huntsman Center.
Utah’s athletic department starts spinning like a Spalding when the topic of transfers come up. Officials point out that the number of transfers fits national trends. Majerus says it’s just part of the culture. The department cites statistics that show even high-profile programs in conferences like the Big Ten feature 50 percent transfer rates (although only nine players transferred from Bobby Knight’s Indiana program from 1995-2000, and he was choking people).
Still, the question remains: Why, given Majerus’ winning record and his results in the classroom, would kids want to play elsewhere?
“I just didn’t enjoy my time there,” said Goettsche, who was in Majerus’ program for a year, most of it spent recovering from a knee injury. “It just wasn’t basketball anymore. I play because I love it but I didn’t love it anymore because of all that goes on with playing for Rick Majerus. I thought, ‘Four years of this would be miserable.’”
“This,” Goettsche and others say, is daily verbal abuse that sometimes crosses the bounds of propriety. Rumors have circulated for years that Majerus has dropped his pants in the middle of practice for emphasis. “I don’t recall ever doing that,” Majerus replied.
“Let’s just say my high school coach never grabbed himself in practice,” Goettsche said.
Majerus’ allegedly coarse language makes the ears of returned LDS missionaries burn.
“He would always say, ‘You’re not on your mission no more—it’s time to get back to basketball and quit being a pussy!’” Whiting said.
Former players like Goettsche and Whiting describe Rick Majerus almost as if he were starring in Full Metal Jacket as Gunnery Sergeant Hartmen—steers, queers and Huntsman Center cheers.
Majerus’ critics say that much like a drill sergeant, he cuts down players by humiliating them in front of their peers and then builds them back up to fit his mold.
“It’s boot camp on the hill,” Whiting said.
Goettsche says he wasn’t surprised by Majerus’ behavior in practice or his method of breaking down players. “I had an AAU coach who was an ex-Marine and he was in your face,” he said.
The difference was, Goettsche explains, that his AAU coach “cared about you. There was a personal feeling with my coach and I didn’t have that relationship with Majerus at all. He didn’t want one. One time, I wanted to talk with him after a film session, but he told me to go to his secretary and set up an appointment. I’m busting my butt, putting in all this effort, so it hurt my feelings.”
Whiting says Majerus’ actions on the practice court went beyond bruised egos and hurt feelings.
“They went to the Final Four, they went to the national championship so he deserves some things there, but the way he bad mouths players in practice and makes them feel like they’re two inches tall is, in my mind, completely B.S.,” he said. “If he talked to people on the street like that, he’d get his ass kicked. In athletics, there’s always going to be a difference of opinion … but to tell people they suck and use the f-word every five words isn’t appropriate in any situation.”
Whiting wanted out of Utah so bad, he gave up a year of eligibility and transferred to BYU, where he starred for the Cougars. Playing for BYU coach Steve Cleveland was drastically different than his experience with Majerus.
“[Cleveland] knew what I was good at and what I wasn’t good at,” Whiting said. “He put his confidence in us whereas Majerus wanted me to prove it to him.”
Goettsche and Whiting aren’t the only former players to openly question Majerus’ tactics. David Jackson left the program following Utah’s loss in the national championship game, transferring to Oregon.
“The way he motivated people did just the opposite to me. When he raised his voice, it just made me go into my little shell,” Jackson told the Eugene (Ore.) Daily Emerald two years ago, adding there were times when he thought Majerus wanted to fight him.
“He wants to let you know he’s in control,” Whiting said. “That’s his prerogative as a coach but a lot of people don’t do well in that approach.”
So they left, a hoops diaspora fleeing to small gyms in places like Cedar Falls, Iowa, and Georgetown, Ky., far away from the Huntsman Center and the man roaming the sidelines.
McTavish didn’t want to leave Majerus’ program, but he wasn’t given much of a choice. After the Utes returned from their Final Four appearance in 1998, Majerus called the backup point guard into his office. McTavish assumed the meeting was the annual post-season wrap, and expected Majerus to tell him what he should work on during the summer.
Instead, Majerus told McTavish he would never play another game as a Ute. Quicker than a no-look pass, McTavish—the kid who was once told by Majerus he had NBA potential—was cut loose.
McTavish’s father, Ian, received a startling phone call from his devastated and crying son, who recounted the meeting with Majerus.
“[Majerus] said, ‘Jordie, I’m going to cut your scholarship.’ It was that brutal,” Ian McTavish said. Jordie McTavish, now an assistant coach at Idaho State University, declined to comment.
Told he would never play for Utah again, McTavish decided to transfer to Idaho State. He ultimately made the Canadian national basketball team, playing in Olympic qualifying—he scored 11 points in one half against America’s Dream Team—before injuring his knee prior to the 2000 Sydney Games.
McTavish’s knee injury proved easier to rehabilitate than the way he was cut by Majerus, a guy used to not finding his name on the final list posted on the coach’s door.
“The way it was handled, it was devastating. I was concerned that he was considering suicide. He was devastated. He wasn’t as devastated when his mother died,” Ian McTavish said, adding it took months for his son to rebuild his self-esteem. “He was in tears. He took a shot right out of the blue. Coach Majerus was really concerned too. He phoned me within minutes … I’ve never seen my son like that.”
Majerus and Ian McTavish weren’t the only ones worried about Jordie. Hill also called the elder McTavish, and still remembers how Jordie took the news.
“Jordie’s situation was one of the most uncomfortable,” he said.
Ian McTavish’s beef with Majerus wasn’t that he rode his kids too hard in practice. A lawyer who has coached basketball for three decades, McTavish is aware of the discipline required at high levels of competition. He is also aware, he says, of the importance of a person keeping his word.
“It seemed to me Coach Majerus had little loyalty to his kids … If they didn’t cut it in his system, he’d cut them loose. When Jordie was there, quite a few of them left. I definitely felt [Majerus] wasn’t fair with the way he cut him loose. When a kid is loyal to you, I don’t think a coach should suddenly cut him loose because he doesn’t fit the mold,” Ian McTavish said. “He’s a very good coach from a basketball perspective but I think he could really use some psychological counseling.”
Lassie, the Good Son and the Birthday Boy
In the summer of 1997, Majerus turned down $4 million per year to coach the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. Over the years, Utah fans have been frustrated with the car rides the coach takes with high-paying johns, but he hasn’t left yet and some doubt he ever will. Majerus says he can’t leave because he keeps telling recruits he’ll be on the hill until they graduate. He tells the next year’s crop the same thing. He might live in a hotel room, but the bags aren’t necessarily packed.
The McTavishes might disagree, but on some levels, Majerus is loyal to a fault. Four million dollars isn’t chump change, not even for a guy who makes hundreds of thousands of dollars for wearing Reebok sweaters.
“He’s as loyal as Lassie,” Wojciechowski said.
Loyalty and his ability to devise defensive schemes are apparently just a few of Majerus’ saintly qualities.
“You’d run out of [time] if I described all the genuinely nice things he does for people,” Wojciechowski said. “I think I’m a fairly nice person, but after being around Rick, I feel like I need to say some rosaries and kneel down at the church pew. I’m just not that nice. I just think he’s one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met,” he said. “That isn’t to say he’s without his flaws—we all have them—but who takes a year off to look after his mom? He’s a devoted son, a devoted friend and a devoted hoops coach.”
On Jan. 9, 2001, an emotional Majerus hastily called a press conference and announced he was taking the rest of the season off to care for his mother. After surviving breast cancer, Alyce Majerus was diagnosed with a large mass in her lung, requiring extensive treatment.
“My mother isn’t doing so well. We’re a very small family. My father is deceased. I am an only son. I have the time and the financial resources to be as supportive as I need to be,” he told reporters while wiping away tears.
And like that, as quick as cutting a player loose, Majerus was headed back to his native Milwaukee to look after his mother.
Conspiracy theories aside—some fans believed his decision was partly motivated by a belief that Majerus knew that year’s team wouldn’t be very good—his decision to put family first struck a chord with many Utahns. Most fans understood, as did the athletic department.
“The decision we made with Rick was the same decision any school would have made,” Hill said, “just like anybody else could have medical leave.”
Majerus didn’t have any contact with the team, which finished a disappointing 19-12, while he was caring for his mother. He was aware, however, of some of the players’ academic problems, and immediately upon returning from his hoops hiatus, the principal dragged Kevin Bradley into his office. Bradley led the 2000-2001 squad in scoring and assists, but Majerus was more interested in Bradley’s GPA and class-attendance rate.
“When players don’t do well academically, I take action … One player who didn’t was Kevin Bradley. Kevin didn’t go to class or go to study hall, so when I came back from taking that season off, I told him if he didn’t go to class he wasn’t going to be back, and he didn’t come back,” he said.
While his critics contend he isn’t always a man of his word, Majerus has so far lived up to his promise to the University of Utah administration not to violate NCAA rules. The coach was slapped on the wrist in 2001 for breaking such heady rules as providing free milk and cookies for players at film sessions. The university launched its own investigation before the NCAA got involved. The school discovered violations such as providing complimentary meals and giving players too much money to entertain recruits, along with the milk and cookies.
In its report, the university acknowledged it had given “too much deference and latitude” to Majerus’ program and made him pay his own way to an NCAA Regional Compliance Seminar.
“Any of the infractions we got were minor,” Goettsche said. “He was upset about it because he couldn’t buy a birthday cake for us on our birthday anymore.”
Wait, a birthday cake? This, from the Ricktator? The big, bad basketball coach who is known to punch water coolers during games and forbid his players from talking to the media? This, from the same guy who cuts down players like he does nets?
Well, apparently, yes.
And that’s classic Majerus. That seemingly incongruent behavior is as much a defining characteristic as his triangle-and-two defense. A former player like Goettsche, who now has to take 40 credits in two semesters at Salt Lake Community College if he wants to play Division I basketball as soon as possible, who appears to have every reason to be pissed off at the coach, who said he had to schedule an appointment with Majerus’ secretary if he wanted to talk, says there were times when he got a genuine warm fuzzy from the sweating, sweater-wearing demigod.
“I felt at some points sincere caring from him,” he said.
Even Whiting, who couldn’t get Majerus to even shake his hand when he returned to the Huntsman Center with BYU, says he doesn’t harbor any ill will.
“Off the court, he has been very good to me but on the court, I didn’t agree with him,” he said.
“He’s a good man,” Ian McTavish said. “I like him on a lot of levels.”
The Parent Trap
Players don’t always agree with their coaches. Kids don’t always agree with their parents. Sometimes the kids run away from home; sometimes they’re dropped off at somebody else’s doorstep. In some ways, Majerus is no different than a frustrated father with 15 teenagers and twentysomethings to look after, making sure they’re going to class and working hard on the practice court. And like any father, he gets pissed.
Except, Majerus is different. He gets paid a lot of money, for one thing. And lately, it seems like he’s been making more trips to the orphanage than usual. Some people, like Hank Raymond—Majerus’ former coach, former fellow assistant and former athletic director at Marquette—say Utahns “are lucky to have him.”
Some aren’t so sure.
“I guarantee that the day he leaves, there will be a sigh of relief,” Whiting said.
He doesn’t appear to be going anywhere—yet. In the off-season, there will be some high-profile flirtations. Majerus will likely say no, referencing promises he has made to pimply-faced 18-year-old freshmen from Logan and Tooele who want to learn from the basketball genius. And more than likely, those same kids will be at different schools when they’re 20 and 21, wondering like Jordie McTavish why they’re suddenly not good enough. They’ll transfer to places like California’s Canada Junior College and Dixie College and Weber State.
They’ll talk about Majerus’ demanding nature, something he will readily admit.
“Am I a tough coach? I probably am,” he said. “There’s a lot of demanding, tough coaches but if I was so tough on Van Horn, why am I the godfather of his baby? Why does Doleac call me up this summer and invite me over for a cookout? Why does Al Jensen call me up this summer, and the two of us spend a day body surfing?”
Some players like Van Horn and Doleac and Al Jensen got close to him. They became better basketball players and better people. Others were spit out like the chewed bone of a barbecue rib, tossed into a waste basket in the corner of a Marriott suite. They too became better people, but not for the same reasons.
“In retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened for my son,” Ian McTavish said.
Since he took the Utah job—despite the protestations of Al McGuire and Bobby Knight—Majerus has remained a constant. Some things will never change. It will always be his way or the hallways of Salt Lake Community College. In his words, he will always be driving the bus. The question is, how full will the bus be this year?
Whiting says the trend of players migrating from Utah’s basketball program will continue.
“People want to be in Salt Lake City playing basketball. All the people he recruits are young kids and young kids don’t have their heads on straight and they make mistakes when they evaluate situations. I did, when I transferred from Snow,” he said.
Make no mistake about it, Majerus won’t change for anybody. He might stop buying birthday cakes, but he’s going to continue being a faithful son. He will always have that witty comeback when the TV cameras are on. And in an era where kinder, softer basketball coaches are taking over for the Bobby Knights of the world, Majerus might just drop his pants and tell you to kiss his ass.
The season starts Nov. 22 when Southern Utah visits the Huntsman Center.
Rick Majerus will be a dad again.